Top positive review
121 people found this helpful
on 2 November 2012
Although I have read many books about Russian history and, in particular the Russian Revolution, this is a story that I don't think has ever been told before. The term 'Former People' was, rather chillingly, applied to members of the Russian Aristocracy after the revolution and this book tells of how the Russian elite was dispossesed and destroyed in the years between 1917 and WWII. The author has taken two major Russian families of this class - the Shevemetevs and the Golitsyns - to illustrate what happened to a whole group of people, allowing us to hear the very human stories of the catastrophe which overtook them.
The book begins in the years before the revolution, when a small educated elite were the rulers of a largely rural and feudal Russia. As the author calls them, they were "isolated islands of privilege in a sea of poverty and resentment." Many members of the nobility understood, and even sympathised, with the violence that erupted. Even members of the aristocracy who benefited from the system looked for restraint and ways to ease poverty and worried about the weakness of Tsar Nicholas II. When revolution eventually came, the aristocracy, alongside most of the population, blamed the Empress, and Rasputin, for the downfall. Count Sergei Shevemetev wrote, "the abnormal power of that woman (Alexandra) has led us precisely to that which any had foreseen." There were members of the aristocracy who welcomed the revolution and the abdication of the Tsar with relief - some who even tried to march in solidarity with the workers, but they were soon made aware that they were not welcome. Not only were they not welcome to support the revolution, they were, like it or not, enemies of it.
Of course, the revolution took place during WWI and most of the nobility, unsure of the changing world order and wishing to be patriotic, had brought their capital back to Russia. In the Civil War everything was taken from them. The nobility went to great lengths to try to hide their valuables - even going to the extremes of dismantling cars and burying them or sewing sugar between sheets. However, they were stripped of everything as the terror went on unchecked. "There is nothing immoral," Trotsky coldly affirmed, "in the proletariat finishing off a class that is collapsing; that is its right." Of course, the nobility were not the only ones who suffered, as concentration camps appeared, executions increased and famine swept the country. Many former nobles understood the feelings of those who had lived in poverty for so long and asked whether the tsarist or the soviet regime was the most criminal. Still, the murder of the Tsar and his family shocked a nation and when it was clear that the Red Army was winning by 1920, many fled into a life of exile. By 1921 Russia was in ruins, with ten million dead and millions more having abandoned the country.
We then come to the years of Stalin and the labour camps, or gulags, where so many people perished - many of them from the nobility who remained in Russia. 'Former People' were seen as a threat - there was nowhere left to hide. Many disappeared into the abyss of Stalin's Terror - never to be seen again. They were outcasts, not allowed to work, humiliated and starved. During 'Operation Former People' in 1935, more than 39,000 were expelled from Leningrad. As WWII approached, the remaining 'Former People' were accused of being pro-German, defeatists, traitors and spies. It seemed that the terror, and the hunt for them, was never ending.
This is a book of great human tragedy, but also of love and friendship and of the human will to survive and adapt. There are stories of personal misery, of great estates reduced to ruin, artwork and libraries plundered and damaged, people arrested, torture and murder. I read the kindle edition of this book and the illustrations, as so often in kindle books, are at the very end of the book. Do make sure you scroll to the end and look at these though, as many are very moving - none more so than two photographs of Vanya Tribetskoy. There is one of Vanya as a young girl, pretty and carefree. The second is her prison photograph. Vanya died a prisoner in the gulag at the age of only twenty four in 1943. Yet, to look at her, you would think she was double that age and the photo of what that poor young girl was reduced to, show her suffering as no words can. Of course, even the nobility themselves, understood that their lives of privilege could not continue indefinitely, but this is a moving and tragic account of a group that may have been labelled 'Former People', but were people nonetheless.